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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Don't Confuse Nationality With Ethnicity

Four years ago this month I went to the Russian consulate in San Francisco and reclaimed my Russian citizenship. The idea struck me suddenly as I waited in a line of ?migr?s at the visa section, as I had done so many times. A man at the head of the line asked the exhausted, vaguely hostile woman in the window, "Do you have citizenship applications?"

"Sure," she said. "Where are you from?"


"Sorry," she said in a voice that was, surprisingly, neither mean nor sympathetic. "That's a different country now."

The line rumbled, as lines do, and moved on. A few people later another man asked, "Could I have a citizenship application? I am from Uzbekistan."

No. But this was clearly a trend. I imagined not having to ask for a visa to go to Russia. I imagined having a red, hammery-sickle-y passport -- I had left the Soviet Union when I was still too young to get one -- and the idea filled me with anxious anticipation. "Can I have a citizenship application?"

"I'm sorry, it is for Russia only," the woman said. I didn't think anything of it at the time, but now I suspect that she thought I looked like I was from some other republic.

"That's all right," I reassured her. "Russia will do."

The application form was almost identical to the one I'd always had to fill out for visas: (1) surname; (2) name; (3) date of birth; (4) place of birth; and (5) nationality. Nationality? I wrote "U.S.," as I always did on my visa applications, as my own private protest against the Soviet idea that nationality is a function of ethnicity.

But it immediately struck me as absurd: How could I be asking for my Russian passport if I claimed I was American. I crossed it out and wrote, "Jewish."

But that struck me as distasteful. Why should I define myself the way they do? I crossed it out and wrote, "American."

But that struck me as cowardly. As an uppity and overly conscious teenager I had looked down my nose at people who tried to pass for non-Jews. I crossed it out and wrote "Jewish."

After a long time full of bureaucratic mess that defies description, I received the first Russian internal passport in my life. It has my name, surname, date and place of birth and (5) "Jewish." As a colleague joked, "It's good you have a document now that lets you know what your ethnicity is."

So now the State Duma is up in arms over the government's intention to delete the "nationality" line from the new internal passports. This, it should be noted, is all that's left of the government's once-liberal intention to abolish the internal-passport system altogether, replacing them with plastic identity cards that contained only a person's name and date of birth (no residence registration stamp, no military-service information, no marital-status stamp). "We should not be embarrassed of our nationalities," one of them said.

What are they afraid of? That I'll forget what my ethnicity is? I risk only forgetting what it was like to have something like the freedom to decide what to write on Line 5. In just four years I have managed to forget what it is like not to notice that a person is making assumptions about my ethnicity.

Masha Gessen is a staff writer for Itogi magazine.